Playing today – the election pollsters like to forget

Playing today – the election pollsters like to forget


    When a 1% Tory polling deficit became an 8% lead

On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of John Major’s shock general election victory in 1992 the BBC Parliament channel is devoting most of its bank holiday schedule to showing the BBC’s results programme from that night. It’s available online as well as via Freeview, satellite and cable. It starts at 9am and is repeated at 2pm and 7pm.

Even though it’s a decade and a half ago Nick Sparrow, the head of ICM, still describes what happened to his industry as a “debacle.” Quite simply the pollsters got it wrong and gamblers who had wagered money based on what they were reporting lost out substantially.

The final opinion polls gave the Conservatives between 38% and 39% of the vote, about 1% behind Labour. On the day itself exit polls were carried out and everything was pointing to a hung parliament.

    But when the votes were counted the Conservatives, under the leadership of John Major, had a margin of 7.6% over Labour – something that was not anticipated at all in the dozens of surveys that had been carried out in the previous weeks.

As a result of this failure to ‘predict’ the result, the Market Research Society held an inquiry into the reasons why the polls had been so much at variance with actual public opinion.

In the months and years that followed several of the polling organisations put in measures to deal with what appeared to be a systemic problem – the tendency of polls when tested against real results to over-estimate the proportion of Labour voters and to underestimate the Conservative share.

Today none of the polling organisations which had carried out those 1992 polls are still around carrying out surveys in the same way. Some have left the UK market while others have adapted their methodologies to deal with the challenges.

    I was the Lib Dem candidate for North Bedfordshire in 1992 but my abiding memory of election night was the shock of hearing the jubilation of Tories at the count when news of Chris Patten’s defeat was broadcast.

Thankfully I was too busy fifteen years ago to have bet very much. If I had I would have got it wrong.

  • The 1992 general election was also the last one before the internet age and the main source of detailed results on the night was through teletext. How crude it all looks now but it was a great resource.
  • Mike Smithson

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